Traveling sometimes stirs your senses and sometimes it stirs your soul. When it only stirs your senses it leaves a temporary impact. It is only when your soul is stirred, it leaves you with a lasting impact. This is one such story.
On the stretch of highway from Imphal to Silchar, there is a patch of around 40 Kms where its just a dirt road.It was highly slushy when I was traveling, due to the rains. I had been advised not to take this road by the hotel staff in Imphal. I had ridden through a few bad stretches across the country and a tinge of arrogance did creep in. I ignored the advise in my arrogance and I can only curse myself.
Now these weren't the worst of roads I had faced. Elsewhere bad patches extend for about 4 - 5 Kms to a max of 10 Kms. This one stretched a whole 40 Kms and my patience is tested. When your patience is tested, you start with a sarcastic just my luck kind of a look. In a while you start abusing your luck. After that you start pleading with God to change your luck. Then you just stop complaining and start giving yourself a pep talk. This stretch did all that and some more. But somewhere in these slushy roads there is a small village called 'Barak'. You have cities and you have tier 2, tier 3 cities. Similarly you have villages and tier 2, tier 3 villages. Barak was one of them. By the time I reached there it was quite dark and the security situation in Manipur being what it is, the sentry in the CRPF post did not allow me to travel further. I had to wait till dawn to start off again. Frankly I was relieved. The slushy stretch still had another 10 odd Kms and some rest would not hurt me. I just had to find a place to sleep.
I ask the CRPF personnel stationed in that check post if there is a hotel or any place nearby wherein I could spend the night. He replied in the negative. Not that I expected a hotel in this village. I was just trying to warm up to him and ask him to give me a place to rest for the night in his bunker or along side his bunker. I had a sleeping bag with me and just needed a roof to rest till dawn and continue on my way to Silchar. So I asked him if I could park my bike near the sentry post somewhere and if he could offer me a place to sleep. I slipped in the fact that my father was an ex Army officer just to shift the odds in my favour. I overestimate my shrewdness. None of the tricks work. The rules dictate that no civilian is allowed in those spaces.
Rules and procedures I believe, should be followed more in spirit than in letter. People in the ground should be trusted enough to make that call. I could sense the discomfort in the CRPF guy. In my heart I knew he wanted to help me out but he just couldn't risk bending rules. One often thinks the world is an unkind place. But im my experience of this bike trip, whenever I have needed help, be it big or small, people present over there have risen up to the occasion and helped me. I know from his looks that he wants to help me but he does not have the authority to help me out. I still know I can get a place to sleep there if I persist with him. I'll just have to talk to a few other colleagues of his, some seniors, maybe talk to some other senior in some base location on the phone, tell my story to everyone and prove my identity to half of them. I was dead tired and I neither had the will nor the inclination to do all that. I just decided, I'll go to those small shops on the other side of the road and ask them if they could give me a place to sleep for the night.
The CRPF check post is on the left side of the road just before the steel bridge over a river. On the other side of the road, I head to the first shop I can see to try my luck. It is actually a small two room hut with a window cut out for a makeshift shop- the kind which will have some biscuits, cigarettes, maggi packets, some tetra packs of fruit juices and possibly tea. The door is open and I have a sneak peek of the other room. It is mostly empty. Maybe there is a modest dining table and a bench somewhere in the corner. Also the thatched roof of the hut extends a little from the front wall. I could use that space to park my bike. This place was perfect. I just have to say the right words and my problems are solved. With a hopeful look and the politest smile I could manage, I go up to the window counter of the shop.
There is a lady, presumably in her early to mid 30's running the shop. She smiles. It is a very kind smile. We exchange simple greetings and I ask her if she has a place she could offer me, where I could sleep for the night. Before I could say anything else she says "You are most welcome". I ask her how much it will cost me. She replies "You are most welcome". I have a feeling that she did not understand my second question. But then I decide to deal with it in the morning. For now I needed a place to sleep very badly. I thank her and I ask her if I could bring my motorcycle to the shop and park it in the space alongside the wall of the hut. She says "Yes". I am a bit relieved - one for the fact that I got a place to sleep the first place I enquired and secondly the fact that I managed it in under 2 minutes. I mean if there is a record for the shortest time you negotiate for a place to sleep when stranded in an unknown village, for all I know I just might have broken it.
A petite woman with a perpetual look of sadness in her eyes. I kind of know there is something in her life that bothers her, but I do not know what bothers her. I park my bike, keep my stuff in the room and head to talk and have our introductions. She is drunk. There is another man and another woman along with her. The man is also drunk but I am not sure about the other woman. I come to know that they are siblings. Two sisters and a brother sitting together and having a drink - now that is not something you would expect in a tier 4 village in this country. I like the fact that these parts are a bit different from the other parts of the country in this regard. Not the fact that people are drinking, just the fact that women are not specifically being judged by a moral prism because they are drinking. I go to them and over broken English and Hindi we do manage a decent conversation. By the end of it I asked them if there is a place where I could probably get some dinner. Veronica's brother points out that there is a restaurant on the other side of the bridge hardly 200 meters away. I decide to go, have dinner and come back. I had just started walking when Veronica calls out and stops me. I stop. She comes over and says "Wait it is too dangerous". I do not understand. The place is hardly 200 metres away. The road is slushy and yes I have to cross an iron bridge which probably doesn't have enough space if a truck comes in. But I do think I can manage. I mean, I did travel across the length and breadth of the country on my motorcycle and I think managing this 200 meter walk for my dinner should be a piece of cake. Then I see she is carrying a torch and she says "Come with me". Veronica has the friendliness that alcohol sometimes does to you. I try telling her that I'll manage and I don't want to make it inconvenient for her. She looks at me. I don't think she understood me because she - all of 5 feet 0 inches now starts walking with a torchlight towards the bridge, and I - all of 6 foot 3 inches follow her quietly. I guess I am not that good at convincing people as I like to believe.
We reach the restaurant and I sit down quietly on the wooden bench and the man in the restaurant places my food before me. I eat quietly and Veronica sits on the other side of the table patiently waiting for me to finish my meal. I finish my meal and again she leads with the torchlight on and I quietly follow behind. She asks me something about the meal I just had. I say it was good. She then asks me if I needed something more to eat. I say I am good. She then asks me if I want to drink. I say "No thank you. I do not drink". A split second later I can't believe what I just said. I could definitely use some alcohol. It was a tough, slow, painfully irritating ride and a drink would have been welcome. Throughout my bike trip, I have in fact, actively scouted for alcohol at the end of every day's ride. I would like to claim that I have no idea why I refused a drink but then I would be lying. I very well knew why I refused and I am very ashamed of it.
It is that thing we call stereotypes. I have always prided myself on the fact that I have refused to entertain any kind of stereotypes, no matter how charismatic the other person is, in trying to convince me of them. But still in that split second - a drunk woman helping me out readily and offering me alcohol and I assume she wanted to sleep with me. A moment later, I was so ashamed of myself. Here was a woman who gave me a place to sleep when I was stranded and as I could now see - all she wanted was someone to talk to. She was reaching out to me but I was reluctant. Yes, she needed intimacy but of a different kind, a kind which I am aware of but I have seldom tried to understand.
We are back at the shop now and she brings me a mat, a blanket and a pillow from her house nearby. She sits on a chair nearby and ask me if I am tired and whether I would like to sleep. I say No and sit up. Then she starts talking - talking about her husband who had left her 5 years back, talking about her two sons mentioning how beautiful her sons were. She was proud of the elder one as he had ambitions to become an engineer. She was a little worried about the younger one as he wasn't that keen to study and wanted to help his mother run the shop. I mumbled a word here n there in between but mostly I did not say a word. I just thought of the women I interacted with (very few - less than 5 maybe) compared to the men I have interacted with on this whole India trip. Most men I have met on the way when they talk, they tell me about themselves. How they have traveled to distant places, the adventurous things they have done, what they dream of, what they aspire to and then maybe about their children and rarely about their spouses. I also thought about my mother and other women I am close to. I then thought whether I ought to sing praises about the selflessness of women or whether I should be saddened by the fact that a woman is conditioned by the society to find her identity as a wife or a mother. These thoughts continuously run in my head all the while she is talking. After a while she says "You sleep now. Don't be afraid ok. I'll lock the shop from outside. My house is just over there". Her brother joins her now and they sit on the bench near the dining table on the corner of the room. I presume they are about to drink again. I do not know as I just doze off pretty soon.
Next morning when I woke up, she is already sitting at the shop. I get ready to leave. I ask her how much should I be paying for the room. She says "No need to pay". I try to insist and politely ask again. She says "No need to pay" again this time a little sternly. I was ashamed of my behaviour once again - twice in two days. I again fall in that trap of stereotypes. If it was a rich person who had let me a room to stay, I would have never insulted them by offering to pay them. When a poor person decides to help me, somewhere I feel the need to pay them. Instead of just feeling grateful, I was trying to belittle her kindness by paying her money. So I just decided to buy things from her store. I bought cigarette packets, bought some biscuits and small packets of cake and fruit juices and had them before heading to leave. As I bid my goodbye and was about to start my motorcycle, Veronica comes up to me with a packet of cake and tells me to keep it for the road. I am overwhelmed and I smile and plead that I do not need it. I had stocked some other stuff in my bag from her shop already. I just was not going to take it.
And then she said "You will feel hungry. Have it. I have nothing much to give. Keep it". I heard that and my eyes welled up. I just took that packet, started my bike and left immediately because tears were about to trickle down my eyes. This is the only time in my 7 month bike trip when I have cried. I just wanted to make sure she doesn't see it.
This was a extremely bad stretch of road from Imphal to Silchar that I took, which the hotel staff in Imphal had warned me about. I had ignored their advise and was cursing myself the whole time. But in hindsight I am glad I never heeded their advise. When you start a motorcycle trip like this, you always romanticize about such stories. The charm of a motorcycle ride is the way it unexpectedly comes your way and just blows you away. I have had other beautiful, memorable stories in this motorcycle trip but this one was special. This is the first story I think about when I think about my motorcycle trip. I knew this was special because when I started my bike and rode off with tears in my eyes I somewhere knew - I had emerged a better man.
A 7 month motorcycle ride that took me to every state in India, parts of Nepal and Bhutan and one town in Burma. These blog entries are inspired by this trip. Stories about people I met, stories about places I saw. Things that intrigued me, things that amused me. They say traveling changes you, they say traveling inspires you and they say a lot of other stuff. I don't know. I just hope that my travel stories entertain you
Right now I am in the process of writing a book based on this trip and figuring out the difference between a writer's block and procrastination.
You can find more information by clicking on my
Facebook Page: The Clueless Rider
Blog page : http://thecluelessrider.blogspot.in/
Instagram Account: thecluelessrider